(Glacier National Park, Montana)
During the Fall, 1987 fourteen year old Ted Systead is camping with his father at Oldman Lake on the lower eastern corner of Glacier National Park when the unthinkable occurs. So begins Christine Carbo’s first suspense novel, THE WILD SIDE as Ted’s father is dragged away and killed by a grizzly bear as Ted escapes with his life. We soon learn that it was a difficult recovery for Ted physically and emotionally, leaving scars in adulthood as he became a special agent for services Eighteen Eleven for the Department of the Interior. He is one of the agents in charge of homicide investigations in the western national parks from their Denver office. Solving murders is his job, but at the same time, despite his teenage experience he develops an emotional and passionate attachment to Ursula arctos horribilis – Grizzly bears.
Ted is an emotionally damaged person whose character is the product of a stunted childhood caused by the death of his father. Carbo develops Ted’s character slowly as the mystery unfolds. We witness the failure of his marriage after his wife, Shelly who did all she could to save their relationship, sees it collapse once she suffers a miscarriage. Carbo effectively integrates Ted’s story and personality flaws into the murder plot she constructs and brings in a number of interesting characters, particularly Monty Harris, his new partner, Joe Smith, Chief of the park police, and Smith’s family to make her story work.
The case involves the death of Victor Lance, a meth user, blackmailer, gambler, among his many shortcomings. At first it appears that Lance was mauled by a bear, but once Ted begins his investigation he realizes that Lance was shot and tied to a tree before the bear finished him off. Ted’s state of mind and investigation are heavily influenced by his childhood memories concerning his father’s death. Since Ted grew up in the West Glacier area many people from his past became part of his investigation. Especially hard for him is working with the Park Superintendent, Eugene Ford who had investigated his father’s death who now had his own agenda for solving the Lance murder. Since Ted’s life is integrated into the plot and we get to know as much about him as we do about the crime.
The infrastructure of the meth trade is on full display including the corruption within law enforcement that allowed it to proliferate. Ted finds himself in a bind as higher ups want the bear that mauled Lance set free which fits the Park’s agenda, but does not facilitate his investigation. Ted believes the bear has swallowed the bullet that killed Lance and hopes it will “expunge” the evidence. Lou Shelton appears to be the perfect suspect, but Ted believes that despite the evidence that points to him, the case is much more complex. Carbo creates a number of surprising twists and turns as Ted finally gets to the bottom of the crime as well as his own emotional issues. Carbo’s ending will both surprise and create a moral dilemma in terms of when is murder justifiable.
Ted Systead is a wonderful character and the way Carbo brings her first novel to a conclusion it is obvious that this will be the beginning of a new suspense series that centers in Glacier National Park. Another important aspect of the novel is the beauty of Glacier that is on full display. Having visited the park two years ago the images presented by Carbo brought back the amazing views my wife and I experienced. I enjoyed her first effort and I look forward to MORTAL FALL her next book.
(Glacier National Park, Montana)